The family of a woman shot and killed by police officers on Hwy. 212 in Eden Prairie last year filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the Chaska officer who shot her, accusing him of improperly using deadly force.
The shooting, which took place one year ago this Saturday, killed Dawn Pfister, 34, of Elkhorn, Wis., and Matthew Serbus, 36, of Brooklyn Center, after they led police on a chase from Chaska to Eden Prairie, then refused officers' commands. Pfister's family says that the mother of two children posed no threat to police and that she had been reported as a hostage.
"What happened is a really clear unconstitutional violation and needs to be redressed," said Minneapolis attorney Bob Bennett, who is representing the family. "This is a clearer act of police misconduct than [New York chokehold victim Eric] Garner … or any case I've been involved with in my 38 years. You don't do this. You don't fire 21 bullets to protect the hostage and then shoot the hostage."
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Monday against Chaska Police Sgt. Brady Juell and the city of Chaska by Philip Sieff, the trustee for Pfister's children, alleges that Juell used "unconstitutional use of deadly force," shooting Pfister four times while she was on the ground and "posed no immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death to police officers or others."
The allegations, City Attorney Jon Iverson said in an e-mail, "do not reflect the circumstances faced by law enforcement officers in this high-risk incident. We are confident a district judge or jury will reach the same conclusion the grand jury did."
Attorney Ryan Kaess, who represented Juell during the state investigation added that Juell is "the finest cop I've ever represented. There's nothing there."
State statutes justify the use of deadly force by law enforcement authorities to protect the officer or someone else from death or great bodily harm. In December, more than 10 months after the Feb. 7, 2014, shooting, a Hennepin County grand jury declined to indict the officers involved: Juell, Chaska officer Trent Wurtz, state trooper Mark Lund and Carver County Sheriff's Cpl. Nathan Mueller.
"I feel a ton of grief for these families, for these people that made that choice," Juell told state investigators. "But what gets me through it all is I know that they made that choice to do what they did … at any time, they coulda just gave up. They coulda laid down … I had no choice. I have 19 years of training in law enforcement and 16 of those years as a trainer and I know what deadly force is and I [know] what they were tryin' … I thought he was gonna try to kill her and then have us kill him [or] she was gonna up at us and kill us with that knife."
Caught on dash cameras
Juell's interview was part of more than 500 pages of documents and redacted squad-car dashboard camera videos released in December. Juell, a 17-year officer with Chaska Police, was the first officer to pursue the car as it sped away from rear-ending another vehicle during the morning commute in what he said looked like a "high-risk stop."
"This just isn't normal," he said to state investigators. "These people were so determined to try to get away from us or to keep the cops away from 'em I had never been in this situation before. It was extremely scary."
For three minutes, squad-car videos show Lund repeatedly shouting repeatedly for three minutes at Serbus to get out of the car and put up his hands. Instead, Serbus steps out and then ducks back into the vehicle, though it's not visible what he was doing.
Mueller, a nine-year officer with the Carver County Sheriff's Office, later told investigators Serbus went back and forth out of the car and just looked at the officers three or four times, never saying a word.
"The look on his face … I haven't seen in a long time or ever have seen, um, I knew that he was, he was not gonna comply and I could tell that … something was more than just a pursuit," Mueller told investigators. " … It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. … the whites of his eyes were the size of a baseball."
On the dash video, an officer is heard telling officers as Serbus is ducking into the car: "Be prepared for whatever; I don't know what the [expletive] he's got." Meanwhile, Lund keeps screaming over and over again. "Show me your hands! Show me your hands! Show me your hands! Get out of the car so we can render aid if needed — now!"
But Serbus "didn't react, didn't care," Juell told investigators, adding that he looked drugged. An officer yelled at someone to get a rifle after seeing Serbus grab something from the vehicle. Lund told investigators he saw Serbus move his coat, reaching to his waist belt, and that he saw a black object that could be a gun, so he continued to command Serbus to put his hands up. Instead, dash videos show Serbus pulling Pfister from the driver's side.
"He's got a gun and her as body armor," an officer is heard saying before officers reported that it appeared to be a hostage situation.
The couple are seen facing each other and moving stiffly.
"Lay down right now!" officers shout as a bang is heard on the video. Cameras show Pfister starting to fall to the ground, but Serbus pulls her back up.
"I don't think it's a gun, guys, I can't tell," an officer is heard saying before Serbus waves a knife at them. "It's a knife! C'mon, drop it! Don't do that to her."
In the video, officers are heard saying Serbus is going to stab Pfister and the video ends, redacted. In documents detailing interviews with investigators, officers said it appeared that Serbus was stabbing Pfister in the stomach. They shot Serbus, causing him to fall, pulling Pfister down with him.
Officers said that Pfister didn't stand up fully, but that she took the knife from Serbus and "advanced it toward the officers," with one officer saying it looked like she was "slinging it." Lund told investigators Pfister brought the knife up over her head and was stumbling to get to her feet — about 6 feet away from officers, with the knife facing them.
"She was gonna get up and run at us," an officer told investigators. " … She grabbed it and the manner in which she was holding it she, she meant business."
Officers said that Juell shot at Pfister and that Serbus then reached and regained the knife, before officers fired again at him.
"I'll always be haunted by what happened," Juell told investigators. " … I know that this incident will just be with me for the rest of my life. … I hope your investigation shows that we did everything that we had to do and that you understand. … And I hope everybody understands this, violence is never beautiful. It's never pretty and this is ugly. This is terrible. This is a tragedy, but it happened for a reason and all the law enforcement guys, they did the best they could."
Treated as hostage
The lawsuit argues that all officers involved in the incident viewed Pfister as a hostage, shooting Serbus to protect her. It also says that Juell shot her without a warning or orders. And the suit contends that Pfister's move to grab the knife after Serbus was shot was a reasonable move after she had been threatened with it.
"[N]o reasonable officer would believe that Pfister posed a threat to Juell or anyone else. Nor did any other officer fire at Pfister with the belief that she was a threat," the lawsuit states.
Bennett also accuses the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which did the investigation, of fabricating Pfister's conduct to "justify shooting her" and said it "improperly elicit[ed] false police statements about the actions of Dawn Marie Pfister and her unspoken and unknowable motivations."
Bennett also says the city of Chaska failed to properly train officers and discipline Juell.
The suit asks for more than $5 million and demands the release of unredacted videos.